The Carpet Bagger's Journal — moving from NYC to Mississippi

August 23, 2016

What to Do When the Waters Rise: Southeastern Louisiana University’s Heroic Response to Crisis

Yesterday was the first day of classes at Southeastern Louisiana University, although classes were supposed to begin last week.  The flash floods that destroyed so many homes in the region caused the shift in schedule, along with many other emergency management strategies that were put in place by the state of Louisiana.  People have talked about the flood down here in the media as if it were happening to somebody else, a bunch of hicks, perhaps — not people who get much news coverage at all, unless there are reports of Klan activity in the region. It happened, though, to my colleagues and my students, not to a group in white sheets but young people and their parents, people of every background, and my heart is full as I write about their courage and commitment to what John Henry Newman famously described as “the idea of a university.” I am inspired by their undaunted optimism.

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Southeastern Louisiana underwater — Photo by Southeastern Louisiana University English Instructor Chris Genre of what it looks like outside his house.

One of my colleagues came in for our meeting late last week laughing about how she had had to carry her cat in her purse when the rescue boat reached her flooded house.  Another colleague told me that she was lucky — only her bedroom floor was destroyed, no other part of her house was ruined. The photo you see here was taken by another colleague right outside his house; he had to direct traffic away from near his property, as when cars sped by, they caused waves of water to enter through his front door.  One of my colleagues, a guardsman, rescued his neighbors with a helicopter, and he was in a fine mood as well. Coming as I do from New York City, where complaining is actually competitive — “You think you have problems? Well, let me tell you” or “All your life, you should have such problems as this man” — I was struck by the stoicism of my new colleagues at Southeastern in the face of such tragedy.  They told me over and over again that it wasn’t as bad a problem as Katrina — but truly, if only 20,000 homes were destroyed, compared to the over 800,000 homes destroyed by that disaster, can one call the floods of last week a minor episode?

The English department faculty meeting I attended to prepare for this week was unlike any other I have ever been to. While I wouldn’t call other departments where I have worked heartless, I got the impression from certain institutions where I have worked that while I wasn’t outright forbidden from serving the personal needs, rather than the academic needs, of my students, there was no encouragement to do so. One department head where I adjuncted lamented that so many students wanted the professors to be “Jesus to them.” For me, that remark was problematic, largely because I am called by my faith to be Jesus to anyone in my midst and beyond who needs an ambassador from Jesus. The Southeastern Louisiana University English department has a philosophy of holistic problem-solving with the student body.  After all, how can one expect good academic results from students who have overwhelming crises in their personal lives?

The chair of the department encouraged us to reach out to students and tell them the resources the university was prepared to put at their disposal. Students who couldn’t make it to class would be excused for the first month if necessary for flood-recovery-related reasons. Students who couldn’t get textbooks or whose textbooks were destroyed could have electronic copies where necessary.  Students without computers because of the flood could check out laptops from the university. Psychological counseling was available for trauma. And he said that he felt that our discipline was particularly well placed to help people answer the question of how one overcomes obstacles and remains hopeful in the face of tragedy. What else, after all, is literature for?

Indeed, my students were more subdued than other nervous first-day-of-school undergraduates. I asked how many people had either lost a home or knew someone who did, how many of them knew someone in emotional crisis — about a quarter of them raised their hands.

I was prepared for that response.  Out of 16,000 students at Southeastern Louisiana University, about 7,000 live in parishes where the flooding destroyed many homes.  I had already gotten emails from a number of students explaining that they had lost everything in the flood, but their parents were determined to get them to school. I congratulated them on making it to campus in a manner I would not have normally done had they not left melted plaster, murky carpets, and dangerous electrical boxes to get to campus.

I told them about the resources available on campus and saw a sea of grim faces, none of the typical feigned nonchalance of freshmen who want to appear cool but are still scared children.  I decided to tell them about the opportunities that surviving a grown-up community problem presents. I talked about September 11th, which like so many other New Yorkers I did not watch on television but through a window, my friends who nearly died, the people the city lost, the sense of shallow mirth and false security the city lost in those days.  I told them that I had learned in that crisis that a disaster like that allows an individual to prioritize — what really matters? It allows one to better become the person one intends to become, if one is willing to face the grief of the situation bravely. I could tell they were listening really intently to these words.  They are, after all, already in the process of discovering who they will become as mature adults.

With that, I told them that I knew it was important for them to learn the subjects we would cover, as words are a form of power.  Words may not control the weather, but they frame how we respond to storms of every kind. Would Britain have survived the  Blitz without Churchill’s speeches? We will never know, but it would be impossible to imagine the crisis without the balm of his resolve. We need never know, thank God. Words are power.  We build with them.  Three holy book religions tell us the King of the universe creates with them, not with hammers and bulldozers — with words well-placed, and the material tools follow.

When I drove back to New Orleans, I saw that the receding flood waters had moved into Tangipahoa Parish near Manchac, making houses already on stilts look unstilted. There was an enormous rainbow in the sky over Lake Pontchartrain, vivid against a gray sky, and I was reminded of Genesis 6:13-16 — “I do set my bow in the cloud, and it shall be for a token of a covenant between me and the earth. And it shall come to pass, when I bring a cloud over the earth, that the bow shall be seen in the cloud: And I will remember my covenant, which is between me and you and every living creature of all flesh; and the waters shall no more become a flood to destroy all flesh. And the bow shall be in the cloud; and I will look upon it, that I may remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is upon the earth.”

Indeed, Southeastern Louisiana University’s community is not destroyed.  Some there lost houses but not hope.  Others there are gaining purpose in lieu of trivia. Others still are taking up the call to serve others without complaint.

 

 

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September 27, 2015

A Tale of Two Campuses: Northern versus Southern college cultures

I begin this week, readers, with a confession: Nothing in this blog entry is scientific at all.  If you read this and say to yourselves, “I went to college down South, and none of this is true about where I went to school,” or “Northern universities are not at all what she says they are,” I take no offense — these words are based on my observations and experiences.

That said, I have taught students in the North and Students in the South, and this is what I have seen.

These are Yankee urban students attending an urban campus.

These are Yankee urban students attending an urban campus.

Here is a photo of students attending the first college where I taught after I received my Masters’ degree, Notice the ethnic diversity of the student body, a truly enriching experience for everyone in the room, the vague weariness — most of these students had full-time jobs while they pursued their bachelors’ degrees.  Notice, too, that they do not grin the way Americans do in other parts of the country but look rather serious.  Indeed, they asked me deep questions as I taught.  If I called right now on the girl in the head scarf raising her hand, I guarantee you her question would impress you, blow your mind, and make you think a new thought.  I loved these students. They generally came to class hungry for debate.  I would throw a polemical discussion topic in the center of the room, and it would go off like a grenade.  For the next half hour, we would have the kind of conversation that makes college worth the price of tuition.  What was important in life?  What did good government do? What mattered more?  Which one betrayed the other?  Write an essay of no less than five paragraphs that argues your point of view.  My goodness, how New Yorkers know how to argue!  It’s our sport.  While the Yankees play at Yankee Stadium, the rest of the New Yorkers not in pinstripes scream at the ump, tell him why he got that last call wrong.  That is who we are. The debates were lively and passionate.  The written work of the students varied in quality.  The ideas were without exception dynamic. Though traditionally-aged, my students had survived things, emigrating from war zones, rescuing siblings from crack-addled parents, maybe just working really hard by age sixteen in a tough city.  Sometimes, they yelled at me in class.  I yelled back.  This wasn’t insubordination.  In New York, we call this conversation.

These young women call their professors

These young women call their professors “ma’am” and “sir.”

Then of course, I went South.  Here is a photo of the sort of students I am likely to teach down South.Notice the blonder hair, the conformity of pastels and Nike shorts and shoes.  They all look about five years younger (and less experienced) than the Yankees above, but they are not younger, only more sheltered.  Notice the smilier smiles.  These students all call me “ma’am.” I have to tell the students in the South that debate is not only allowed in the class, it is required, I have to put it in the syllabus.  And then we have to practice it. This happens because it is considered incredibly rude to contradict one’s elders in the South, even if your Aunt Lucille says that her chihuahua’s rump spot looks like the face of Elvis.  You’re not allowed to ridicule your granddaddy’s view that the Mexicans are about to invade with a huge army if you’re Southern.  In the North, by contrast, one of the most loving family gesture is to turn to your brother, slap him on the back of the head as hard as you can, and shout, “What are you, stupid?”  That is loving, Brooklyn style.  In the South, even if your brother is unimaginably stupid, you can’t ask the question, and frankly, if it’s that bad, you already know what he is.  He is stupid.  But this tradition of Southern respect makes my students unwilling to contradict one another and debate.  It makes class time polite but more dull as well.

As I believe in classrooms where debate takes place that the professor has a requirement to briefly disclose his or her biases on any topic, I often tell students in my classroom that I am a committed Christian.  In the North, the room of students usually slightly tenses.  Arms get folded across chests.  They wonder if  I will judge them for not being Christians (I won’t) or because they live a wild and reckless life (I don’t).  When I say the same words in the South, I hear an audible sigh of relief.  In all these students’ non-contradicting family’s gatherings, there is an uncle who pulls aside college student one by one who are there, and he puts his arm around each of them.

“Don’t let them steal your Jesus, boy!” He says.

I am not the professor who will steal, or even attempt to shoplift their Jesus, as I have mine chained to the luxury coat rack with an alarm so nobody removes Him.  So they are relieved.  I don’t want them to be Godless.  I just want them to be sort of rude, by their grandma’s standards at least.

I feel a little schizophrenic wherever I am teaching now.  When I am North, I notice the bumptiousness of my students and wonder why they are so nervy.  When I am South, I notice the passivity of my students and wonder why they don’t take more risks. The truth is, there is wisdom in being both courteous and bold, and I suppose that’s why we have a whole country full of college students, all of whom are delightful in their own ways.  On both sides of the Mason-Dixon Line, my students are optimistic, compassionate, and offer fresh perspectives when urged to do so.  That’s why I love teaching all of them.

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